In Conversation with the Innovative Swiss Pianist Nik Bärtsch
At first glance, it can sometimes feel like music theory is full of “rules.” What type of music belongs to what genre? What is considered modern and what traditional? How does one play a piano? Join us as we explore the concept of being innovative with music by merging different genres, styles and traditions with the Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch and learn that breaking the rules might actually create musical magic.
You describe your music as Zen Funk. Could you explain what Zen Funk means to you?
Nik Bärtsch: My music is definitely influenced by jazz. Mainly, though, it is music that has a strong sensual groove and a lot of space in it. This combination is not so common; usually you either have the intense sensual and rhythmic music like funk and groove or you have a sort of meditative music that is very spacy and ambient. For me, both styles are very nourishing for playing and listening to music, so I started to bring these two musical “genres” together. The music gives you a lot of energy, but at the same time it has space for your own creativity and fantasies.
Instead of giving your tracks a title, you refer to them as “moduls.” What does that mean?
NB: I would like to leave the poetic freedom to the listeners and players. Everybody has a unique feeling and understanding of the music they listen to. That’s why I believe that a piece should be neutrally named. They are called “moduls” because I work in a modular way; I work with patterns and structures. When these structures are dramaturgically organized and have a certain coherence, then I give them a number because then the pieces work as a piece and speak for themselves.
What inspires you when you are composing new music?
NB: Other composers and musicians and especially the people with whom I work. The way the drummer of my band plays music greatly influences the way I write music, for example. A lot of inspiration also comes from the martial arts. The movement technique and the partnership that is so important in Aikido have had a big impact mentally for me, but also in regard to the rhythms and connections I have with music. And lastly, I find my third source of inspiration in the tradition of design that we have in Switzerland. Swiss precision has definitely inspired me in the way I organize and work with music.
How would you describe the Swiss musical tradition?
NB: Switzerland does not have a strong musical jazz tradition that goes back for centuries, but instead has a tradition of handcrafted precision and an entrepreneurial spirit that finally makes our music so unique. It’s the same idea with the Swiss cliché of chocolate; the Swiss combine resources from all over the world and then work very precisely on one single product for a very long time. Through time, Switzerland found its famous “formula.” This refinement is something that I highly appreciate.
How does it compare with the U.S. musical tradition?
NB: The U.S. has a very long musical tradition, but at the same time it is also quite strict. It is so strong that it sometimes hinders a lot of young players in discovering “their” jazz. In some way, we have more freedom in Switzerland to discover our way of jazz because we do not have as many traditions.
You play in many different formations: quartet, band and solo. Is that challenging?
NB: All formations have certain challenges. That’s why I have chosen them. The Ronin quartet is an amplified festival band, so it’s very direct and sensual. The Mobile band is an acoustic formation that cultivates the idea of a small ensemble that plays completely acoustic music. And playing solo is always like a self-reflection and discovery for me.
What music do you like to listen to?
NB: For me, the genre is not so important; I tend to like certain bands, players or even certain pieces by composers. I have three daughters from the ages 10 to 14 and they all listen to very different styles of music. I learn a lot from the music they listen to; from the pop music that is very present now to very special classical pieces that my second oldest daughter likes to listen to.
What is next for you?
NB: I am touring a lot with my band this year, so there will be some performances to prepare. Other than that, there will be a lot of writing for me for compositions in the near future.